Age requirements in gymnastics

Age requirements in gymnastics

The age requirements in gymnastics are established by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique and regulate the age at which athletes are allowed to participate in senior-level competitions.

History of age requirements in artistic gymnastics

Prior to 1981, the minimum required age to compete in senior events sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) was 14.cite journal | year = 1980 | month = September | title = Within the International Federations | journal = Olympic Review | issue = 155 | pages = p. 520 | url = | accessdate = 2006-04-11 ] The earliest champions in women's gymnastics tended to be in their 20s; most had studied ballet for years before entering the sport. Hungarian gymnast Ágnes Keleti won individual gold medals at the age of 35 at the 1956 Olympics. Larissa Latynina, the first great Soviet gymnast, won her first Olympic all-around medal at the age of 21, her second at 25 and her third at 29; she became the 1958 World Champion while pregnant with her daughter. [ [ "Legends: Larissa Latynina"] "International Gymnast," 2001] Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská, who followed Latynina to become a two-time Olympic all-around champion, was 22 before she started winning gold medals at the highest level of the sport, and won her final Olympic all-around title at the age of 26.cite web|url=|title=Vera Čáslavská: The heroine of Mexico|publisher=International Olympic Committee|accessdate=2008-07-01]

In the 1970s, the average age of Olympic gymnastics competitors began to gradually decrease. While it was not unheard of for teenagers to compete in the 1960s — Ludmilla Tourischeva was sixteen at her first Olympics in 1968 — they slowly became the norm, as difficulty in gymnastics increased.

By the late 1970s, Federations occasionally requested permission to allow slightly underage athletes to compete as seniors. One such example is that of Canadian gymnast Karen Kelsall, who legally competed in the 1976 Olympics at the age of 13. At the time, gymnasts had to turn 14 by the start of the Games to be eligible. Kelsall, with her December 1962 birthday, was five months shy of the requirement but was turning 14 within the Olympic year, and was granted a special exemption by the FIG to compete. [ [ Gymnastics Canada biography of Karen Kelsall] ] Such exemptions were not automatic, however: American gymnast Tracee Talavera, who was named to the United States team for the 1979 World Championships, was deemed ineligible to compete due to her age of 12½ years. [ [ List of competitive results and bio at Gymn-Forum] ] [ "Rift Over Underage Gymnasts"] Neil Amdur, "The New York Times," December 7, 1981]

In response to the changing demands of the sport, at the 58th Congress of the FIG, held in July 1980 just before the Moscow Olympics, the age limit was raised from 14 to 15. Under this rule, which went into effect in 1981, gymnasts were required to turn at least 15 years of age in the calendar year to compete in senior-level events. This age limit remained in place until 1997, when it was raised one more year, from 15 to 16. [ [ "Female gymnasts: older—and healthier?"] "The Physician and Sports Medicine," Vol. 23 No. 3, March 1997] [ "Romanian gymnasts faked age to compete"] BBC News/Europe, May 2, 2002]

Reasons for age restrictions

Age restrictions are designed not so much to level the playing field in terms of skill and physical advantages, but to protect child athletes from injury and exploitation.Fact|date=August 2008 Sports medicine physician, Dr. Jeanne Dopbrak has stated that " [a child athlete's] immature skeleton just isn't ready to handle the day-to-day stresses that will occur." Those stresses imposed on only partly developed muscular/skeletal system by gymnastics are almost certain to cause damage that would persist into adulthood.

A 16-year American study of gymnastics injuries concluded gymnastics is the most dangerous sport for girls, with injury rates comparable to those found in boys who play soccer, basketball and hockey.cite news |first=Alice |last=Park |title=Making Gymnastics Safer for Kids |url=,8599,1728902,00.html |publisher=Time |date=2008-04-08 |accessdate=2008-08-26] cite news |first=Lindsay |last=Hutton |title=Is Gymnastics Right for Your Child? |url= |publisher=Family Education Network |date=undated online article |accessdate=2008-08-26] An athlete whose bones are still growing is more likely than an adult to suffer skeletal injury, because the bones are more porous and the joints not yet fully formed.cite web|first=L.|last=Klenerman |title=ABC of Sports Medicine: Musculoskeletal Injuries in Child Athletes|url= |publisher=British Medical Journal |date=1994-06-11 (BMJ 1994;308:1556-1559) |accessdate=2008-08-26] Lesions that are precursors to stress fractures occur in 11 per cent of young female gymnasts, compared to 2.3 per cent of girls and women in general. The International Gymnastics Federation says that intense physical activity, such as that engaged in by gymnasts training at the elite level, affects the functioning of growth hormones, possibly causing delayed bone growth and the onset of puberty – although the body is able to recover and catch up later if given rest periods.

In addition, practicing elite sports is mentally and emotionally demanding. Young gymnasts at these levels are often pressured to perform by coaches and parents, and ex-gymnasts have spoken out about behavioural and psychological problems common to the sport.cite news |title=Physical and Emotional Problems of Elite Female Gymnasts |url= |publisher=The New England Journal of Medicine |date=1997-01-09 (Volume 336:140-142) |accessdate=2008-08-26]

Current regulations

Currently, as per the 1997 regulation, gymnasts must be at least 16 years of age, or turning 16 within the calendar year, to compete in senior-level events. For the current Olympic cycle, in order to compete in the 2008 Olympics, a gymnast must have a birth date before January 1 1993. There is no maximum age restriction, and some gymnasts compete well into their 20s. The oldest female gymnast currently competing in senior international events is Germany's Oksana Chusovitinacite web|url=|title="Ageless Chusovitina Turns 33"|publisher="International Gymnast"|date=June 19, 2008|author=Turner, Amanda|accessdate=2008-06-24] , who was born in 1975, and was age in years and months|1975|06|19|2008|8|8 old at the 2008 Summer Olympics. She was age in years and months|1975|06|19|1992|7|25 old at her first Olympics, the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Legal exceptions

The one exception to this rule applies to the year before the Olympics, when gymnasts who are one year below the required age, but will be the required age in the Olympic year, may compete as seniors at the World Championships and other FIG meets. For instance, gymnasts born in 1977 were allowed to compete at senior events in 1991, when they were 14 or turning 14 within the calendar year. Within the current cycle, gymnasts born in 1992 were permitted to compete as seniors in 2007. This is permitted to allow nations to qualify to the Olympics with their best teams, and to give emerging gymnasts some experience in major competition before the Olympics. However, the FIG is considering eliminating this exception. [ [ "Age limits for gymnasts may be set after 2008"] Xinhua News Service, December 4 2007]

In addition, the age requirement technically only applies to meets which are sanctioned and regulated directly by the FIG: the Olympics, the World Championships and the World Cup circuit. Many other meets, such as the European Championships, have separate divisions for juniors. Additionally, some competitions, such as the Pan Am Games, the Pacific Rim Championships and the All-Africa Games, have rules that permit seniors and juniors to compete together.

Verification procedures

According to official statements from the FIG, "the accepted proof of a gymnast’s eligibility for competition is a valid passport issued by the country of residence." [cite web|title=Gymnast Age Limitations|url=,10869,5195-191062-208285-45462-288055-news-item,00.html|publisher=NIS FIG Office |date=2008-08-09 |accessdate=2008-08-19] This verification process has been criticized by some in the gymnastics community, with the argument that countries can manufacture and submit falsified documents for underage athletes.cite news |first=Nancy |last=Armour |title=More questions about Chinese gymnasts' ages|url= |publisher=Associated Press |date=2008-08-02 |accessdate=2008-08-02] cite web|url=|title=Tweddle the loser as age doubts mar He's triumph|publisher="The Independent"|author=Harris, Nick|date=2008-08-19|accessdate=2008-08-19] In several cases, gymnasts involved in age falsification have verified that they did in fact compete under forged passports provided to them by their federations."The Secrets of a Gymnast." Norescu, Andrei, 2006] cite web|url=|title=Daniela Silivas discusses her age|publisher="ProSport"|date=2002-06-30|accessdate=2008-07-01]

Starting in 2009, gymnasts competing in FIG-sanctioned events at both the senior and junior level will be required to have licenses issued by the Federation. These licenses will reportedly verify the competitors' ages based on their passports. However, the licensing will not include any independent verification of submitted passport information, just as in the current system. [cite web|url=,0,3941558.story|title=More age monitoring for women's gymnastics|publisher="Los Angeles Times"|author=Pucin, Diane|date=2008-08-10|accessdate=2008-08-16]

Response from coaches and federations

The age limit is arguably one of the most contentious rules in gymnastics, and is frequently debated by coaches, gymnasts and members of the media. While some members of the sport, such as former USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi, have expressed support for the age limit of 16, others, such as coach Bela Karolyi, have heavily criticized it. [ "Gymnasts are Old-lympians/Golden Girls going for gold in Sydney"] Paula Parrish, "Colorado Springs Gazette," September 14 2000]

Supporters of the age restrictions have pointed out that it has encouraged older gymnasts to remain in the sport. The average age of an international gymnast was 18.10 years in 2005. In contrast, in 1994, before the new age requirements, it was 16.49, and in 1989, gymnasts who had reached the age of 17 were already often considered to be of retirement age. [ [ "Gymnasts too young? FIG says the rumor is false"] International Sports Press Association, February 13 2007] [ [ "Gymnastic Girls, Not Women"] "The New York Times", August 1 1989]

Opponents of the rule have countered that by barring younger gymnasts from top level meets, they are denying them valuable competitive experience. They have also argued that junior gymnasts perform and are scored under the same "Code of Points" as the seniors, perform the same skills, and are thus not avoiding the physical impact of training and performing high-level skills. It is also argued that the current "Code of Points", with its increased requirements for difficult skills, is more suited to younger and lighter athletes, and puts older athletes at greater risk of injury. [ "Issues of Age Seem to Follow Chinese Gymnasts"] Jere Longman, Juliet Macur. "The New York Times," July 27 2008]

Age falsification

Age falsification is the practice of advancing gymnasts' ages to make them age-eligible for senior-level competition. Reports of age falsification among top-level international gymnasts first began to surface in the 1980s, after the age limit was raised from 14 to 15. This has frequently taken the form of inconsistently reported birthdates; at other times, speculation has been raised due to the young appearance of the gymnasts. Age falsification has been revealed and confirmed in several ways. In some cases, gymnasts themselves have come forward and publicly confirmed and verified the falsification. [Daniela Silivas, Alexandra Marinescu, Yang Yun, Lavinia Agache, Olga Mostepanova] In other cases, documents revealing inconsistencies, such as original birth certificates, have been researched and uncovered by the press. [Gina Gogean] Inconsistencies with reported birth dates and ages at international and national competitions have also led to the discovery of age falsification. [Kim Gwang Suk, Lavinia Agache, Olga Bicherova]

Gymnasts who have had their ages falsified, and have spoken about their experiences, have indicated that they were not given a choice in the matter. In a 2002 interview, Romanian gymnast Daniela Silivaş, whose age was advanced two years in the 1980s, noted: "One of the officials of the Federation told me 'Look at the passport, from today you're not 13 years old anymore but 15.' Nobody asked me if I agreed to this, I was just a child. They needed gold medals and everybody who was involved in gymnastics knew about these practices."

While age falsification has been denied among many gymnastics officials, in recent years some have publicly admitted that the practice has occurred. In reference to the falsifications of the early 1990s and 1980s, the head of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, Nicolae Vieru, was quoted in 2002: "Changing the ages was a worldwide practice...we copied this from others." The FIG has publicly stated that they view age falsification as an unacceptable practice. However, in only one case, that of Kim Gwang Suk, has the FIG elected to take any action against a gymnastics federation for age falsification.

Reasons for age falsification

According to many scientific and medical studies, as well as reports from ex-gymnasts, younger gymnasts may have psychological or physical advantages in elite gymnastics competition.

Psychologically, younger gymnasts may be more fearless, and have less visceral appreciation for the potential for injury. They are therefore more likely to perform more dangerous, and more highly scored, routines with confidence and steadiness.cite news |first=Dan |last=Stefano |title=China gymnast underage, AP alleges |url= |publisher=Pittsburgh Tribune-Review |date=2008-08-15 |accessdate=2008-08-26] “Psychologically, I think they worry less,” former Olympic medallist Nellie Kim told the New York Times. cite news |first=Jeré and Juliet Macur |last=Longman |title=Records Say Chinese Gymnasts May Be Under Age |url= |publisher=The New York Times |date=2008-07-27 |accessdate=2008-08-26] Daniela Silivas, in her interview, commented, "You should know that I competed better at the age of 13 than at 17. I felt much better, physical "(sic)" and mentally."

Physically, younger gymnasts, particularly those who have not yet gone through puberty, tend to be lighter, smaller, more pliable and flexible, which aids them in performing more complex skills and gives them a better strength-to-weight ratio. When a gymnast hits puberty, growth spurts and weight gain may affect her centre of gravity, causing mental and physical stress as she must adjust, and in some cases relearn, her moves to compensate.cite news |first= |last= |title=Row over ages of winning gymnasts |url= |publisher=BBC/CBBC Newsround |date=2008-08-22 |accessdate=2008-08-26] Smaller athletes have generally excelled in the more challenging acrobatic elements required by the evolving Code of Points after the 1960s.cite book | last = Ryan | first = Joan | title = Little Girls in Pretty Boxes | publisher = Doubleday | location = Garden City | year = 1995 | isbn = 9780385477901 ] In addition, older gymnasts may be more prone to certain types of injuries caused by overuse of bones and muscles; younger gymnasts are less likely to have such problems, or more likely to be able to work through pain while injured.

Major verified cases of age falsification

Kim Gwang Suk (North Korea): Kim, the 1991 World Champion on the uneven bars, competed in the 1989 World Championships at the estimated age of 11 or 12 and was active on the international circuit between 1987 and 1993. The North Korean Gymnastics Federation submitted inconsistent dates of birth for Kim at various competitions, claiming that she was 15 for three consecutive years. The case of Kim Gwang Suk is the only one to receive any sort of penalty or disciplinary action from the FIG,Fact|date=October 2008 who barred the North Korean women's team from the World Championships in 1993. [ "Gold Medalist and His Team May Be Barred From Olympic Games : Last Chance for a North Korean Athlete"] Christopher Clarey, "International Herald Times," Friday, April 19, 1996]

Lavinia Agache (Romania): Agache competed at the 1981 World Championships at the age of 13, under a passport which gave her year of birth as 1967. She was in fact born in 1968. The falsification was suspected as early as 1981; Agache confirmed her 1968 birthdate to "International Gymnast" magazine in 2000. [ [ "Whatever happened to Lavinia Agache?] "Gymnastics Greats"] [ [ "Former Romanian Star Pities Raducan"] "International Gymnast", December 23 2000]

Olga Bicherova (Soviet Union): Bicherova, the 1981 World Champion in the all-around event, was introduced at an early 1981 meet as a 12-year-old, but was claimed to have been born in 1966 at the 1981 World Championships later in the same year. [ [ "Olga Bicherova: The Youngest Champion"] Vitali Melik-Karamov, "Soviet Life," September 1982] [ [ "Whatever happened to Olga Bicherova?] "Gymnastics Greats"]

Gina Gogean (Romania): Gogean competed in the 1991 World Championships and 1992 Olympics with a passport with a 1977 birth year. However, in 2002 her original birth certificate was uncovered by the media, revealing she had been born in 1978. [ "Romanian gymnasts 'lied about age'"] Associated Press, April 18, 2002]

Alexandra Marinescu (Romania): Marinescu, a World and team Olympic medalist in the mid-1990s, had her birth year advanced from 1982 to 1981 in order to be eligible for the 1995 World Championships and 1996 Olympic Games.

Olga Mostepanova (Soviet Union): Mostepanova, who competed at the 1983 and 1985 World Championships and is the only gymnast in history ever to achieve a 'perfect' score of 10.00 on all four events in a major all-around competition,Fact|date=October 2008 has been reported as having 1968 and 1969 birth dates, but has stated that she was actually born in 1970. [ List of competitive results at Gymn-Forum] ] [ "Olga Mostepanova: I simply love children"] Yevgeniy Aksyonov, Beth Squires (trans.); "Sovetskiy Sport" May 7 1998.]

Daniela Silivaş (Romania): Silivaş, a multiple World and Olympic gold medalist, competed as a junior until 1985, when her birth year was changed from 1972 to 1970. She went on to compete at the 1985 World Championships at the age of 13. Silivaş revealed the falsification to the media in 2002.

2008 Beijing Olympics age controversy

During the 2008 Summer Olympics the age of four Chinese gymnasts, He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan, Deng Linlin, Yang Yilin, was brought into question, with many foreign media outlets speculating that they were underage during the Olympics. [cite web | url= | publisher=New York Times | date=2008-08-9 | accessdate=2008-10-06 | title=Teeny-Tiny Matter of Age for China’s Gymnasts | last=Macur | first=Juliet] Multiple age investigations were conducted at the urging of media, as well as United States Olympic Committee executive Jim Scherr and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge,cite news|last=Hutcheon|first=Stephen |url= |title=IOC calls for investigation into gymnast's age |publisher=""|date=2008-08-22|accessdate=2008-08-22] [cite web | url= | title=International Olympic Committee Investigates Underage Gymnasts Claims | last=Kent | first=Jo Ling | accessdate=2008-10-06 | publisher=ABC News | date=2008-08-22] and the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) found that the gymnasts had met the age requirements and were eligible to compete. [cite web | url= | publisher=International Herald Tribune | date=2008-10-02 | accessdate=2008-10-06 | title=Officials say Chinese Olympic gymnasts not underage] [cite web|url= |title=Ruling Backs Chinese Gymnists |author=The Associated Press |publisher=New York Times|date=October 1, 2008|accessdate=2008-10-01] Chinese sports administration also acknowledged that mistakes in its paperwork have contributed to the misunderstanding. [cite web | url= | last=Macur | first=Juliet | date=2008-08-24 | title=China Cites Paperwork Error in Age of Gymnast | publisher=New York Times | accessdate=2008-10-06]


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